Alcohol is a stimulant. False! Alcohol is actually a depressant.
Most people believe alcohol is a stimulant because of its euphoric effects, and there’s good reason behind it. After people have their first beer, they tend to feel better. Some users even claim that a drink or two gives them a boost of energy.
Are drinkers lying then? Absolutely not.
During the early phases of alcohol consumption, the drug is shown to increase confidence, lower inhibitions, and improve mood – all pleasant experiences.
These positive feelings are due to the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. Interestingly enough, even just the thought of drinking or watching a 30-second beer commercial can prompt the release of dopamine in some users. Taking just a sip of alcohol causes a spike in dopamine and highlights its importance behind alcohol-reinforced behavior.
And that added kick of energy? According to one study, that comes from increased levels of acetate, an energy-packed byproduct of alcohol metabolism, in the body.
The Stimulating Effects of Alcohol
So, it’s not that far-fetched to assume alcohol is a stimulant. In fact, two alcohol-induced effects are alluded to in defense of that argument. For instance, it’s proven that alcohol (a) increases aggressive behavior and (b) heightens sexual and risk-taking behavior, effects both commonly caused by stimulants.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the research.
To measure aggressive behavior in humans as a result of drinking, scientists used something called the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (TAP). This is a prominent lab experiment, during which participants compete against a fake opponent in a competitive task, the loser of which gets a shock.
Add some drinks to the mix and what did they find?
Studies consistently found that participants under the influence delivered shocks at a higher intensity and a longer duration than those that were sober… Ouch! Similar aggressive behavior can be seen in those who’ve ingested amphetamines and bath salts, both well-known stimulants.
As for the heightened sexual and risk-taking behavior, there’s a general correlation between rising blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and risky behavior. This same risky sexual behavior can be observed in methamphetamine users, a subculture of which engages in “party and play” or “chemsex” while high.
So with this evidence, why isn’t alcohol a stimulant? The answer has to do with time.
Unfortunately for chronic drinkers, these stimulating effects are short-lived and don’t make up the whole picture. Alcohol elicits more depressive side-effects than it does stimulating ones. Just take a look at our good friend, the Biphasic Alcohol Effects Scale (BAES), thanks to our colleagues at the National Institute of Health.
As illustrated, alcohol-induced stimulation peaks at about 45 minutes. Afterwards, these effects slowly dissipate, reaching their baseline in about 90 minutes. At that point, you can kiss your energy boost goodbye and start prepping for the impending grogginess!
But that’s for the average user. What about those struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD)?
According to Dr. David Newlin, heavy drinkers tend to have sharper and shorter peaks. That means alcoholics may experience greater feelings of euphoria and decreased feelings of drowsiness. Read that again. Slowly.
Researchers are suggesting that heavy-drinkers may feel more of the positive effects of alcohol and less of the negative ones – a recipe that makes drinking in excess a lot more enticing. But don’t go tell that to your alcoholic uncle. Also, don’t tell him that these effects actually improve if he increases his intake (i.e. shots get the job done a lot better than beer).
Unfortunately, you may have to give him a word of warning before he goes out and gets a 6-pack, thinking he’s scot free. Although heavier-drinkers may experience a better ratio of stimulation to sedation, they are more inclined to binge drink, a deadly habit driven by intense cravings to recreate that initial alcoholic high.
And, that’s where things get scary, and users can find themselves catapulted into the vicious cycle of alcohol addiction.
As you can start to understand, alcohol has properties of both a stimulant and a depressant. However, it’s the depressant properties which are more pronounced.
The Depressant Effects of Alcohol
Depressants are drugs that slow down both physical and psychological activity in its users. Common examples of these include benzodiazepines, opioids, and cannabis. The reason why alcohol is defined as a depressant is because of its long-term sedative effects.
It’s these long-term behaviors that lead professionals to classify alcohol as a depressant in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Whereas alcohol-induced stimulation is typically short-lived, alcohol-induced sedation can last much longer. And just like other depressants, alcohol decreases neural activity in the central nervous system (CNS) and retards cognitive and motor performance. Chronic use leads to increased drowsiness and depression, two key characteristics of a depressant.
As for the drowsiness, it’s this sedative property that makes alcohol such a popular nightcap.
Have a couple of beverages before bed, and you’ll be sound asleep in no time. In fact, drowsiness and alcohol are so directly correlated that these two things are almost linear when plotted on a graph, as done by Timothy Roehrs, which can be seen here.
As a result, the more you drink, the quicker you’ll fall asleep.
Just don’t expect to get a great night’s sleep. As indicated by the National Sleep Foundation, drinking alcohol before bed leads to:
- Less restorative sleep
- Interrupted circadian rhythms
- Blocked REM cycles
- Aggravated breathing problems
- Extra bathroom trips
Yet, 20% of Americans continue to do so.
Finally, alcohol is a depressant because… drum roll… it causes depression. Although alcohol initially causes a rush of dopamine, overtime these levels fall off.
After which, users report feeling less motivated, more fatigued, and a loss of interest in doing things they once enjoyed. In some cases, depressive feelings are felt for several weeks after one’s last drink.
Therefore, we can conclude that alcoholism and depression are inherently linked. But, to what degree? Does drinking alcohol lead to depression, or are depressed people more inclined to drink? This is a big topic of discussion by mental health and addiction professionals in today, and opinions vary.
Internal studies performed at Stonegate Center show that high levels of depressive symptoms are characteristic of clients suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD). And, outside sources suggest that being diagnosed with AUD doubles your chances of experiencing a major depression.
In other words, it can go both ways. In more complex terms, there’s a bi-directional causality of the relationship between alcohol and depression.
As you can see, alcohol resembles both a stimulant and a depressant. However, it’s alcohol’s long-term depressant effects that characterize it as a depressant by professionals.
We hope that helps answer your question!
Please note, if you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction, recovery is possible. Come join our recovery community, get plugged in with our amazing staff, and kickstart your recovery on our 125+ acre campus just outside of Fort Worth. For more information, give our Admissions Specialists a call at (817) 993-9733 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to meeting you.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction as well as the pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center’s status at the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content creation. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.